A New Model for Building Collaborative Communications Capacity

ReThink Media is a unique, non-profit organization focused on building the communications capacity of nonprofit think tanks, experts, and advocacy groups working toward a more constructive US foreign and national security policy, the protection of human and civil rights, and strengthening our democracy.

With more than 40 years of cumulative organizing experience between them, Lynn Fahselt and Peter Ferenbach launched ReThink after countless hours of conversation around a few key questions. Why do some movements fail where others succeed? Where is movement work headed? How can we connect more fundamentally to Americans’ daily lives and engage them in building a better future? And why do our opponents so frequently dominate public discourse and so consistently frame the terms of debate?
 
Finding the answers meant questioning the status quo. And their conclusions became the foundation of ReThink.
 
The first is that media and communications are central to movement building. Ultimately, we communicate our values successfully and inspire our constituencies or we do not. Strategic communications isn’t just about sending out a press release or penning an op-ed, it is about driving a powerful narrative.
 
Success is not possible, however, if organizations do not have the capacity, the training, and the resources to drive their messages. Building one organization’s capacity, meanwhile, is inadequate because no single organization can win a policy victory. Winning lasting change is a team effort. We need to build capacity across movements.
 
Communications can be the glue that binds efforts together. The process of reaching agreement on messaging strategies can involve intense negotiation, but the negotiations themselves can be the means to creating messages with shared input and ownership.
 
From the outset, we questioned the value of competing for media attention and keeping press lists private. A limited number of journalists cover any given topic. The more everyone in a movement knows who they are, the more we can provide them with different angles and unique voices, ideally driving unified messages. Our goal can’t be competing for a slice of the media pie. Our goal has to be creating a bigger pie. And the more we engage the media, the greater the coverage.
 
Considering these questions, another core principle emerged: data is neutral. When we map the media landscape on an issue, we can see where we are winning and losing. We can see where our opportunities are and where threats exist. We can see whether messages are resonating or not. And these findings don’t belong to any single organization— they belong to the movement. They represent shared challenges and insights that require shared responses. And every data point is an opportunity for learning, allowing us to refine and adapt our collective work and strengthen our hand for the next struggle.
 

The ReThink Model

Movements most powerfully come together and capture the public imagination where they intersect with their audience—in the media. While organizations have members and constituencies, most Americans form an understanding of an issue through the media, through contested discourse, and through the values they associate with each “side,” rather than through any individual organization.
 
That’s why our motto (coined first by one of our staff) grew to become, “The issues are our client.” What does this mean? It means working to align messages and provide capacity-building support across an entire sector. It means no billable hours and the ability to say yes to helping organizations who are doing great work, but do not have the resources or staff to get that work out there. And it means monitoring the issues 24/7 and helping organizations and community members respond quickly to an unforeseen crisis or opportunity, whether or not we have ever worked with them before.
 

HOW DO WE HELP BUILD MOVEMENTS?

  • We dig deep into data and analysis to determine where our spokespeople are succeeding, where we’re losing ground, and where we have the greatest opportunities to advance our narratives.
  • We deliver communications training, tailored to the groups we work with and the issues they work on, to help new and established voices better capture the media’s attention and shine light on their work.
  • We strategically map the media landscape, informed by our own deep and ongoing engagement with the policies and organizations involved, to ensure that the right voices are heard, at the right moment, and in the right mediums to shift public opinion and achieve policy wins.
  • We eliminate duplication and conserve limited resources by providing centralized access to specialized tools, resources, and training that are often out of reach or deprioritized.
  • And we’re right there, in the trenches, alongside the groups we work with, working as a partner to build their capacity for the future.